The Cooperstown Myth

Baseball HOF

It’s not Williams College

Cooperstown.  I waited 30 some odd years, but my day finally came.  I didn’t get any votes or anything.  Just a few souvenirs and a bunch of photos, some good, some not so.   What is Cooperstown?  You really don’t know?  If you are an American from the United States of America (because you could be an American from 34 other countries that constitute the continents of North and South America) you should know.  You should not only know its claim to fame (and it really is a claim) but know where this mythical place is located.   I’ll tell you where it’s not.  It’s not in western MA, the home of Williams College.  And I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a place where they make tires, you know, Cooper tires, or barrels – actually they might make barrels there.   I’ll tell you what it has:  a lake – Lake Ostego, where you can’t toss stones or bring your pets or even fish, but where you can rent out boats, I think.

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Cooperstown.  It’s in upstate NY (I think everything except NYC is upstate) in the middle of a bunch of Monsanto green cow pastures.  The gently rolling slopes of the Alleghenies intoxicate.  And then out of nowhere, a sign appears – 300 miles to Buffalo.  Have you noticed that wherever you are in NY, there’s always a sign for Buffalo?

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Cooperstown.  No coopers there.  And no buffalo as far as I could tell.  But lots of tourists.  It’s a tourist town, with one attraction, and one attraction only – The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  And I went through through this shrine to baseball the other day and can now proudly check it off my bucket list.  And what a fine shrine it is; baseball’s hallowed ground and as much the story of the “United” States of America, as baseball, as Ken Burns would say, and I think he’s right.

My wife asked, why Cooperstown in the middle of nowhere?  We all know Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839, the same man who later became a Union General during the Civil War.  But it’s not true.  Doubleday had nothing to do with the game and Cooperstown as the birth of baseball is little more than a manufactured lie that got the town a permanent contract with baseball, thanks to the Sporting Goods king, A.J. Spalding, who no doubt stood to benefit – a boon to the tycoon. The museum displays the “Doubleday” baseball found in some guys attic in Cooperstown that was supposed to prove Doubleday invented the game.  A poster above the display concedes that the ball did not prove Doubleday invented the game and that baseball derives from  other games played in England and elsewhere long before 1839.  However, a commission ruled otherwise and so the myth was born.

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And so baseball is really a reinvention of cricket and rounders and similar games from overseas brought over by early settlers and tweaked over the years until the game was finally codified and standardized.   And good thing too, because at one point, you could literally throw a guy out by hitting him with the baseball.

As unoriginal as the game turns out to be, baseball really is the story of this country.  Union prisoners played the game.  Segregated leagues paralleled the black struggle for racial equality during the Jim Crow years.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that led to the integration of the major leagues which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a good five years.  Women first played the game in dresses.  As the game spread to other countries where America has strategic interests, the game caught fire and is now played around the Americas and the world.  In today’s modern game, the rosters are more diverse than ever with players originally from Cuba, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, Japan, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic. But regrettably, our national pastime, with its humble school yard roots in England, has been co-opted and commercialized to serve the interests of big business from the very beginning.  And without a salary cap, the Yankees and the Red Sox will always have a competitive advantage.

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But I liked the museum.  As a Red Sox fan, I liked seeing Babe Ruth’s and Ted Williams wax statues swinging together like best friends.  And the oil painting of Cy Young pitching who looked  like a giant 65 year old grandfather put a smile on my face.   I had my picture taken in front of the exhibit of one of my favorite baseball players, Roberto Clemente.  I took a photo of Curt Shilling’s shoes that held a bloody sock, that was not on display.  I snapped shots of an autographed Pedro Martinez Red Sox jersey, Phil Niekro‘s baseball card portrait, some old dresses the ladies used to wear when they played, and a few shriveled up gloves that looked like giant milk duds, which is also how I described some old Hall of Fame basketballs I saw in Springfield, MA.

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I enjoyed the day, as did my wife, who doesn’t like baseball.  The museum delights thousand of fans, young and old alike from all over the globe everyday.  Cooperstown; myth making at its best, the stuff of dreams and souvenirs.  And if you’re easily spooked like I am, stay away from the wax museum, just up the street.

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